Sunday, January 20, 2019

History of My Reading: For Love

At our first meeting during registration for my first college classes, Professor Sam Moon offered to read anything I wrote that I wanted to show him.  I must have shown him my first paper--the result of a semester-long class project--because he was the one who suggested I submit it to Dialogue, the new faculty-student publication preparing its first issue.

I remember for certain that I showed him the first short story I wrote at Knox.  I'd read somewhere--probably in Writing Fiction by writer and veteran teacher R.V. Cassill (the only such book I owned)--that stories are told in either the first or third person.  Almost no one had adopted the second (or "you") person.  So naturally, for my very first college story, I chose to try it.

It was an interesting exercise but it's clear why it's so rare.  It did create a certain impersonal tone, suggesting a narrator trying to keep a distance from the emotions evoked by the events in the story, while enabling stark expression of those emotions.  Though I doubt I was aware of this at the time.

The subject was leaving home for college (it became a source for details I included in a previous post about that first trip to Knox.)  Mr. Moon honored the feeling, the importance of the feelings in the story, while gently and sometimes bluntly pointing out its many flaws and especially the worn-out expression which I had absorbed from the Reader's Digest and another popular sources, which I was just learning to disdain.

Sam Moon taught poetry writing and play writing (he himself was a poet published in the most respected journals, and edited a book of classic one-act plays.)  The professor who taught fiction was Harold Grutzmacher.  Everyone said he was leaving Knox at the end of the 1964-65 school year, and his second semester fiction workshop would be the last opportunity to have a class with him.

"Grutz" was young, glib, charming and somewhat glamorous. Seldom without a lit cigarette, he exuded the writerly blend of sardonic wit and surprising gentleness. At some point towards the end of first semester I ambushed him outside Old Main and asked to be in his upcoming class.  He refused at first--it was oversubscribed already.  We were interrupted but I stuck around and finally he relented a bit, and told me to drop off a story I'd written, and we'd see.

I may have actually written a story for this purpose, but in any case I provided ten pages of fiction that must have shown enough promise for him to accept me in the workshop.

Looking at that manuscript now, it does have some surprisingly apt turns of phrase and, for a story in which nothing much actually happens, a narrative flow.  I recall that he picked out a single detail he liked: the protagonist reads a letter he's just received, and notices the point at which the handwriting switches from black ink to blue.

My emphasis on physical detail came in part from Cassill's instruction, as well as a bit from the example of John Updike's stories.  But mostly it came from J.D. Salinger, who--especially in his stories--was the poet of clothes and postures, and where cigarettes and ash trays were placed.  In Salinger, that description was more than description; it was substance, and it was style. The switching from black to blue ink was a Salinger-like move (though not literally a steal.)

Moreover, so was the letter.  In the story it functioned as offering a different point of view, a clarifying judgment, on the protagonist's self-absorption.  But the fact of it and the tone of it came from the big brother letters and phone calls in Salinger's Glass family stories and novels, or even the Hollywood big brother D.B. in Catcher in the Rye.  In my first year of college, I missed having a big brother's point of view (hard to get when you're the oldest and the only boy.) Early freshman year I actually invented a big brother for myself in letters to a young woman friend from high school, as a kind of running joke, and so I would have someone more interesting than me to write about.

The only surviving manuscript or fragment I'm sure was for this course is a memorable one for me: it is my first story analyzed for an hour by other students in the workshop class, presided over by Mr. Grutzmacher.  In fact, it is the very copy, because it contains my marginal notes on what they said about it.  (There are a lot of them on the first page, but they grow sparser--not because there were fewer comments and criticisms, but because there were too many.)

I've always remembered this story as a failure, even as something of an embarrassment because of that workshop, but reading it again now, I can see some interesting features. The opening was criticized for the generality of description.  Fair enough, but the tone of the opening announced that it wasn't strictly speaking a naturalistic story, at least in terms of mood.

 Titled "A Little Less Than the Angels," it was an account of a walk along a wooded fringe of a golf course, taken by two Catholic high school students the summer before college, Ted and Jeanne.  In Ted's pocket is a letter he'd just received from another student they both knew, Lois.  She and Ted had something like a romance that seemed to die out before being unexpectedly revived just a few months before.  In between, he'd been dating Jeanne.  So he couldn't tell her about the letter.

Near the end of the story the letter is excerpted: Lois tells him she had to make a choice, between him and God.  Her choice was to enter a convent.  Summed up like this it seems funny if not cringeworthy, and perhaps the chief accomplishment of the story is that it does not seem so in its context.  It's a crisis for Ted, which among other things, affects his relationship with Jeanne. That part of the story is largely true, compressed in time.

I noted in the margins several times the class critique that the shifts from "realism to romanticism" were confusing. Also "shifts in point of view," a regular criticism of student stories. Certain passages were rightly flagged for being trite in expression.

But the class also discovered possibilities I hadn't seen, or consciously intended. Ted keeps interrupting the conversation with Jeanne by claiming to see a light in the fir trees that she always just missed seeing.  To me, this was just his way of distracting her from places in the conversation he didn't want to go, or just out of boredom with their mundane talk and life.  But others linked it to the larger philosophical issues on Ted's mind, like destiny and faith.  I wrote down one striking comment by an anonymous classmate: "Lois is never going to find God--but Ted will, in a pantheistic way."

There was a lot of discussion about the title and what it could mean beyond what was said--that all humans have some divinity, just a little less than the angels.  I note that Mr. Moon thought Ted sees irony in this when he mentions the phrase, responding to Jeanne's observation of players in a sandlot football game they pass as "animals."  (Was Mr. Moon at the workshop?  Or did he read the story at another time?)

Grutzmacher commented that the story's principal faults were lack of proportion--Ted and Lois are strong, Jeanne is not--and the shifting point of view.  Today I think the story's principal fault (apart from trite expressions) is that it is too long.  Cleaned up and compressed and a third shorter, it might be a decent story.  But that process was probably beyond my capabilities at the time.  I wrote it so instinctively, and the feelings in it were being worked out on the page. I had no real distance.

After this workshop session, I took a real walk with Judy Dugan, who'd become a friend as well as sometime debate partner.  As we re-entered campus, Mr. Grutzmacher saw us and smiled his approval.  It's good to get some consolation after a workshop session, he said, for they can be brutal.  

J.D. Salinger
 I wrote several stories for this course (according to a letter home), and at the end of the semester Mr. Grutzmacher told me he thought I had a writing future and should continue working at it, and to keep taking writing courses.

 Now these many years--and many workshop and writing courses later--I have mixed feelings about writing classes and workshops, and doubts about the nature of their value. (This is no reflection on Grutzmacher, who remains a pleasant memory.) In any event, these days they've become more assembly-line and credentialing for my tastes.

The right teacher at the right time can be crucial to a writer's development and success.  But whatever there is to learn from teachers and workshops, the primary lessons for how to write come from reading.  Absorption, imitation and variation have always been the basis for learning any craft or art, but you don't learn much from watching somebody write (except maybe tenacity.)  You learn from reading what they wrote.  It doesn't surprise me that until very recently, no Nobel Prize winning writer had ever taken a writing workshop.

Like its immediate predecessor, "A Little Less Than The Angels" shows me a continuing J.D. Salinger influence, particularly in the dialogue.  (Not in the letter--it's almost exactly from the real one.)  Even the name Ted was probably suggested by Salinger's story "Teddy." (Or by Ted next door in Anderson House.)

Jeanne's one-dimensional character was in sympathy with Salinger's characteristic over-sensitive male among carefully mundane females, who are still intrigued and attracted. Salinger also dealt with questions of faith and value, even in religious terms, which was a vocabulary familiar to me from Catholic schools.  Salinger's main characters gravitated towards mystical traditions, towards Eastern philosophy and Stoicism, all of which were more appealing alternatives. But this would be my last story in which these issues were overt concerns--except destiny.  That keeps coming up.

Grutz left Knox at the end of that semester, as did several other young teachers--a topic to be taken up next time.  The 1965 yearbook included a snarky comment implying--as I'd also heard at the time-- that he was leaving for Parsons College, widely known as a "party school," for the money.

 In his exit interview in the Knox Student, Grutzmacher did not dispute this--his salary would be doubled, with additional benefits.  But his job would also offer a fresh challenge--administering other teachers in the freshman writing program as well as teaching.

He also noted the uncertainty of the writing program's future at Knox, and the college's commitment to it.  Indeed, he would not be replaced with a full time faculty member until my senior year.

At that point he'd published one book of poetry, titled A Giant of My World (which referred to his young son, Stephen.)  I bought a copy at the Knox Bookstore, and he autographed it for me "with pleasant memories of a hectic year."  I still have it.

Harold Grutzmacher went on to chair the Parsons College English Department, and after an administrative stint at the University of Tampa, returned to the Midwest to become Dean of Students at his alma mater, Beloit College in Wisconsin, another Midwest Conference school along with Knox.

There he was "Hal" and became "an influential member of the Door County community."  In addition to his administrative work, his book reviews and columns, and eventually owning a bookstore, he wrote more poetry.  His second book was a collaboration with his son Stephen, to whom his first book was dedicated.

He continued to teach writing at several schools in Wisconsin, even teaching freshman writing as a Dean.  He helped several writers edit their books. There is still a series of annual awards in writing and other arts in Door County, known collectively as the Hal Prize.  

Harold Grutzmacher died in 1998.  A story about him, along with one of his poems, is here.

There's a corollary to my theory about the college experience--that all of history is experienced Now. The problems sometimes come when something seems Now but isn't. For example, in college we read Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and read about their milieu (Paris as a paradise of the arts, their dedicated editor Maxwell Perkins, etc.)  It all seemed very Now, but most of it was long past, as some of us eventually learned the hard way. This was a more general problem in that the literature we studied stopped years before, mostly years before we were born. There were similar situations in other fields.

When it came to literature and related arts, the Knox counteractive to this absence of the contemporary was Sam Moon and the living writers and other active artists he enticed to campus. My first remembered experience of this was during that second semester spring.  Every year a writer was brought in to judge student writing competitions, and for several days of talks and readings. That year it was the poet Robert Creeley.

Creeley as a writer and a presence electrified a good portion of the Knox student body--certainly all the writers. He seemed to change everything overnight. His late April reading in the Common Room was the first of several memorable moments I experienced there (and it was memoralized by a photo of Creeley taken by Knox student photographer Jim Bronson, which graced the back cover of a Creeley book published later.)

Creeley read poems from his collection For Love: Poems 1950-1960.  It was the way he read them that mesmerized, and remains memorable.  Reading certain lines in the title poem today, I hear Creeley's voice saying the words before I read them.

This in a sense was not a coincidence.  Creeley talked about his poetics, based on William Carlos Williams and especially Charles Olson, with whom he'd worked at the fabled Black Mountain College.  We got a mimeographed handout of Olson's Statement on Poetics (which he developed as a result of correspondence with Creeley), emphasizing the poet's breath as fundamental to the form of the poem.  So Creeley's reading was a key to the form of his poems, with their short, tremulous, fragmented lines.  (In marked contrast to Olson's own full-throated, arm-waving, histrionic style, as preserved in this video.)

Creeley also said that "form is never more than an extension of content."  Olson wrote of "field composition" in which the poet "can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares..."  He also referred to poems as energy discharges, and it was that tremulous energy, trying desperately to find expression, that gave Creeley's reading such presence and drama.

Looking back, I see that I hadn't had a real literature course yet, so in a sense these discussions on contemporary poetics was the first such instance in my college education.

Every student involved in writing or reading contemporary poetry was reading For Love that spring, and the following year's issues of the literary magazine (then called the Siwasher) showed Creeley's continuing influence on Knox poets.  That possibly also derived from Creeley as the romantic figure of a contemporary poet: lean, dark-haired, with one eye missing, he looked like he'd stepped out of a western movie (rather than Harvard, where he'd been an undergrad.)  His voice belied his New England background for those with a more experienced ear than most of us, and there was a certain rugged Puritan rigor (and guilt) in his writing and persona, if not necessarily in his behavior.

My copy of For Love has several poems marked, and a note on the page with the poem "After Lorca" which indicates that Creeley said the lines really were Lorca's, but no Lorca scholar could locate them.  But it would be a few years later, though still before I left Knox, that I settled on the poem in it that still means a great deal to me.  I felt then and now that it's somehow emblematic, though of what I can't quite explain.  It's called "The Innocence:"

Looking to the sea, it is a line
of unbroken mountains.

It is the sky.
It is the ground.  There
we live, on it.

It is a mist
now tangent to another
quiet.  Here the leaves
come, there
is the rock in evidence

or evidence.
What I come to do
is partial, partially kept.

Bobbie and Robert Creeley
 Some years later, Creeley would reenter my life.  In early 1970 I found myself in Buffalo, New York, with my visit to Steve Meyers (fellow former Knox student) prolonged beyond my original intention.  He was then a grad student at SUNY Buffalo, so I spent a lot of time on campus, and in the English building--then a kind of glorified long trailer.

  Many things happened in those months, but one of them was spending time with Robert Creeley, on the teaching staff there.  I remember in particular a party at which Bob was holding court at one end of the house, and his wife Bobbie at the other end.  Bobbie read palms, and she loved the maze of lines in mine.

Creeley was instrumental in getting me admitted to the graduate writing program for the following year.  He felt that the small college was no longer adequate preparation for the literary life, and that something more urban like Buffalo would help.  Eventually I decided not to stick around.  The last time I saw him was a year or two later at a reading at Boston College, and I spoke briefly with him afterwards, essentially to let him know that I was there in the Boston area, and doing okay.

I have another 8 or so of Creeley's books: poems, interviews and essays, short stories, his only novel.  One of the poetry collections, Pieces, was an unexpected best seller due to being sent to American troops, though he was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War.  Creeley thought it was a mistake--somebody thought it was about guns, he surmised, or "pieces."  It's one of his best anyway.

As fragile and self-subverting as he sometimes seemed, Creeley had a long career, publishing some 60 books and becoming an eminent and award-winning poet and teacher.  He helped a lot of young writers along the way.  He died in 2005--forty years after that April week in Galesburg.

Next time: Philosophy, Fred Newman and the exodus of dreams, as the second semester 1965 concludes.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

R.I. P. Mary Oliver

“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”

R.I.P poet Mary Oliver

"I made a world out of words.  And it has been my salvation."

Monday, January 14, 2019

History of My Reading: When It Was '65

Shortly after the year 1965 began, I was back at college in Galesburg, Illinois to complete my freshman year.  I'd returned home for the first time for Christmas break.  I visited my old high school (and yes, everything seemed smaller there, including the nuns), reunited with family and saw close relatives.  Someone asked me what I'd missed most being away from western Pennsylvania, and I said the hills, and the blue outlines of the wooded mountains in the distance. The unrelieved Midwestern flatness had started getting to me.

 Nobody seemed to quite understand that or much else I said (which wasn't a lot) about Galesburg or college, or even asked questions.  Few went very far from home, and certainly not to the Midwest, and few seemed curious.  But my godfather, who drove long distance trucks, understood what I meant, and felt the same.

I saw close friends, particularly Mike and Clayton.  Sometime in probably my second year of high school, I began playing with the reel-to-reel tape recorder my father had become bored with.  I wrote scripts--an update of Wells' War of the Worlds, and brief satires inspired by Stan Freberg and That Was the Week That Was on TV.  I enlisted friends to play the parts, do sound effects and music.  Soon we were a core of four, and one summer we worked up a stage act of comedy and music as The Four Frauds.  This collided with the folk music boom, so in our senior year, Clayton (an actual musician), Mike (otherwise my debate partner) and I formed a folk trio called the Crosscurrents.  So at Christmas we got out the guitars, refined the old songs and learned new ones, including some originals.

Among the tapered StayPrest shirts and whatever, this Christmas I probably received a copy of Robert Frost's latest (and last) collection, In the Clearing, which was a national best seller.  Frost was still the main contemporary poet I knew, though I was fascinated by e.e. cummings (who'd died in 1962) and was much moved by several poems by Theodore Roethke I'd read in a magazine in the Knox Library (he'd died in 1963, and his last book was published posthumously.)

Back at Knox, I first faced the unfinished business of the first semester: mostly final exams and papers.  I then spent semester break in Berwyn, Illinois with Jim Miller and his family (as described in a previous post here), who was about to be my new roommate. When we returned, my first semester roommate John Heyer had moved out of Anderson House, and Jim moved from across the third floor to my room (actually two small rooms) at the top of the stairs, the one with the crazy angle walls and the turret facing Tompkins Street.

I can tell you many things about this second semester, partly from a fair but incomplete set of student newspapers and a scattering of other documents, but largely from letters to and from home.  Letters were primary communications in those days. We did not have phones in our rooms, let alone in our pockets.  Long distance calls were relatively expensive, and otherwise problematic.  At Anderson House we had exactly one telephone, which sat on the landing between the first and second floors.  If it rang, someone might or might not answer it and find whoever the call was for.  If you were on the phone, your half of the conversation was audible to anyone in the living room on the first floor.  And it was largely a campus phone, that--if memory serves-- went through a campus switchboard.  As a result, a lot of communications still exist in what today we'd call hard copies, formerly known as letters.

So I can tell you what the weather was like at certain times: Snow in early February, for example, and tornadoes in the Quad Cities in early April. I remained on campus for Easter weekend, and joined a small motley crew on a muggy day filling gopher holes in the levees somewhere within shouting distance (though not visual range) of the river.  This day culminated with one of the best meals of my life--probably sandwiches and coffee--from a roving Red Cross pickup truck.

With more rain in late April there was substantial flooding in the Quad Cities. Illinois was declared a disaster area. Bob Misiorowski reported on Rock Island for the Knox Student. I went out with a large group filling sandbags on a rainy day in Oquawka. The river crested below predicted level, the town was safe, and we celebrated with underage beers at the Blue Parrot.

Second semester began in February, but March letters were already about my upcoming second trip home for semester break.  My friend Mike got excited because my return coincided with several events in which the Crosscurrents might participate.  The folk music craze was in full swing.  I don't recall if we actually did any of those gigs.  (I had however performed solo at the Knox hootenanny in mid-March.)

Mike was day-hopping to St. Vincent College--he'd been personally recruited for their debate team.  But it wasn't until second semester that I got back into the debate game, participating in an intramural tournament--the topic had to do with "individualism" so I suppose I consulted John Stuart Mill and David Reisman books (Individualism Reconsidered, The Lonely Crowd.)  Classmate and fellow third-floor Andy House resident Tim Zijewski was my partner. We won all four preliminary debates but came in second in the finals.

But that was enough to get me on the official Knox debate team, and on a tour of Iowa colleges just before spring break in late March.  Second year Judy Dugan was my partner, and in combined silliness we concocted the alternate identities of Tracy and Margaret Steele, by which names we were identified in a photo taken in the new Grinnell College student union, published in an Iowa newspaper.  Later in the term, I was Judy's guest for a party on a Mississipi riverboat.  We spent most of it on deck--my only time on the big river.

In reviewing campus events of that semester--plays, concerts, lectures, movies-- I was surprised how many stand out in my memory.  So maybe this is the place to outline my theory of the college experience.  We were young, we had little personal history and I for one had no sense of things happening over time.  Almost anything before the 1950s was in that murky territory of "the past."  In college, we were being presented with the past--its literature, philosophy, science as well as its music etc.  We were experiencing quite a lot of it for the first time.  So in college, everything is Now.

That came home to me in later college years a couple of times.  I noticed for example a fellow student who always wore long greatcoats, and a long beard.  He was a Russian major I believe, but in any case he lived in a Dostoevsky universe. That universe coexisted with all the other little universes other students were living in at the same time, including me.

Or this: I was in the Gizmo one evening when I watched a group of students I knew trickle in, looking particularly grim.  They sat together in that dark semi-enclosed area just to the left as you entered from Seymour, in silence.  I asked someone what was wrong.  They'd come from the final Hemingway seminar class, in which Hemingway's suicide was discussed.  Hemingway had killed himself in 1961--but for those students, it had just happened.

Richard Bauer, Halo Wines
So in the second semester of 1964-65, I heard for the first time Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" played live, when the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Lukas Foss, visited Galesburg.  I saw Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in January, performed by the National Players out of Washington, D.C. Two members of the cast--Richard Bauer and Halo Wines--would marry and go on to distinguished stage acting careers in New York and particularly at the Arena Stage in Washington.

In March I saw a memorable touring version of the Broadway hit Spoon River, made all the more haunting because Edgar Lee Masters, who attended the college affiliated Knox Academy in 1889, wrote his poetic Spoon River Anthology about small town Illinois (with even a reference to a "Professor Moon" of Knox College.)  In the cast was Gil Turner, prominent in the Village scene and Civil Rights movement, who a few years before had been the first person to perform Bob Dylan's song, "Blowin' in the Wind."  Dylan played at his wedding.

But some of the most memorable plays were Knox productions.  We'd had the unforgettable Hamlet.  The main stage production in April was Thornton Wilder's Skin of Our Teeth, and this remains the only live production of this play I've ever seen.  It's an intriguing play in form and content, particularly relevant to today, but seldom produced.  William Clark directed.

The real revelations were the Studio Theatre productions--produced, directed and acted by (mostly) students.  In perhaps his last gift to Knox, Kim Chase revamped and opened up the process to allow more participation and productions, and there was an immediate payoff in creative energy that winter and spring.

Again, I saw plays there I would not have the opportunity to see again, or at least, very rarely, including Edward Albee's  The American Dream (directed by Richard Newman),  Pinter's "The Room," (directed by Joan Dillenback), Noel Coward's "Fumed Oak" (directed by David Axlerod, featuring Wendy Saul).

 Jim Eichelberger's production of Genet's Maids was the most memorable, for the stylized (I would later learn to call it "expressionistic") acting and makeup.  Joelle Nelson was mesmerizing.  Otherwise, I didn't understand a word of it.

  I took particular note of a new play by a Knox student--Skip Peterson's Last of the Harries, directed by Kevern Cameron.  I saw that a student play could actually make it to the stage.

I  had attended Cinema Club films, fascinated but without much comprehension.  The film vocabulary was so different from the Hollywood movies I knew.  At some point however it all clicked.
So this semester I saw Truffaut's Jules and Jim, and Kurosawa's Rashomon for the first time. There were also the Social Board weekend flicks that included the British New Wave film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

This was a time, by the way, several years before Knox offered anything like a film or filmmaking class. Student and head of the Cinema Club David Axlerod was our unofficial film department.  His Student preview of Jules and Jim referred to what he called the "lively fatalism" of the French New Wave, a fine description.

These plays and movies in particular inspired new reading: of the plays themselves, and others by the same authors (Pinter and Albee were especially popular at the time, and in Knox theatre for the next few years, along with Ionesco and Beckett).

 I also read the novels by Alan Sillitoe that were the basis for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and a film I liked even better that the Cinema Club would eventually present, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.  Their protagonists were British working class young men but they were familiar enough as a version of my future that I had escaped, or perhaps only modified.

As for the French New Wave, I not only saw many of the films repeatedly over the years but I eventually collected at least 20 books on the subject, including illustrated scripts of  a number of the films, especially Truffaut and Godard.  I interviewed Truffaut for Rolling Stone in the 1980s, and in 2002 I reviewed a book on the French New Wave for the San Francisco Chronicle.  It all started at Cinema Club 1965--which I mentioned in the first paragraph of that review.

This semester saw the dawning awareness of the Vietnam War.  Contrary to his campaign promises, LBJ greatly expanded the number of American troops and in March, began the bombing of North Vietnam.  In May, a debate between administration officials and a group of professors was seen via video in the Recital Hall.  It was, the Student story noted, dubbed a "teach-in."  More would soon follow.

For the amusement of our tech saturated era, the Student also published a story that spring about a digital computer constructed by two students (junior Phil Petit and senior Bill Weiher) to tabulate results of the Student Senate elections.  In May, a Student story by Barbara Cottral revealed that President Umbeck and several faculty members would view the operation of a $10,000 video tape recorder.  "The list of possibilities for the new recorder is unlimited," she wrote.

Of course, that semester I also took classes. I subjected myself to the second part of my Spanish inquisition language lab course, but couldn't also continue math and remain sane.  Speaking of which, after my successful experience with intro to sociology, I thought I'd try psychology.  But after a couple of classes I found the brand of academic behavioral psychology on offer to be coldly arrogant, mechanistic and small.  I dropped the course.  It would be decades before I discovered (through James Hillman, in Jung and related psychology) what I had been looking for in 1965.

I quickly substituted a political science intro course.  I don't remember much about it, or what we read (probably a text.)  I don't even recall the professor, but I do remember there were a lot of students in the class, and it was the only course I had at Knox with a teaching assistant, or "tutor." Her name was Ginny Radatz, who late that spring received the first annual John Quincy Adams Prize from the Political Science department.  I remember her as tough, smart, engaging and funny.

The only other element of this course I recall is the mock U.S. Senate that was part of it, though held on a Saturday and theoretically open to the public.  I was Senator Robert Kennedy of New York.

My other two courses would be of particular importance to me, so I will indulge myself in two more posts on this second semester of my first year--with maybe more about my reading than this post directly discusses.   Next time: my first writing course and Harold Grutzmacher, plus Sam Moon and the Robert Creeley experience.  Then my first philosophy course, and the controversy over Fred Newman that consumed the campus.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

The Nothing New Year

Information theory talks about signal and noise.  Real information--relevant, important, effective--has to be distinguished from the noise around it.  In terms of the future of civilization, 2019 is very likely to be dominated by noise.

Lots and lots of noise.  But that's not new.  What would be new is focusing on what will matter most: the signal issue of our time.

Not that everything even out of Washington lacks meaning or doesn't affect lives. But in terms of priority, it's just more and more noise.  Seductive at times, but deafening.  What is the media buzzing about at this moment?  The Wall, which is utter nonsense on so many levels, and will be forgotten.  But even the ins and outs, ups and downs, of investigations and indictments, ever closer to the Oval Office. Even the ups and downs, ins and outs of who will run for President...Really, in the end, it's noise.  Noise that distracts everyone from the most important, the most consequential issue: the survival of human civilization and the natural world as we know it.

People have needs that must be met every day.  But so much that we focus on, win or lose, will be meaningless in contrast to the threats of climate and extinctions. Instead we will be angered, amused, frightened, entertained and above all distracted, by the noise.

The now former Governor of California Jerry Brown has it right in an interview with Politico:

During an interview with POLITICO at the governor’s mansion here in late December, Brown was indeed serious. He is not full of warm words about the native wisdom of the people: They strike him as scared, easily prone to distraction and cynical manipulation. He is not more optimistic than ever: He is worried the planet is hurtling toward catastrophe.

And yet, as he sees it, America’s entire political culture—elected officials, the news media, intellectuals—seems blithely disengaged from the magnitude of the peril, endlessly distracted by trivia. On climate change, nuclear proliferation and the new awareness that technology can be an instrument of oppression as well as individual empowerment, he continued: “The threat is huge; the response is puny; and the consciousness, the awareness is pathetically small.”

The start of the year is also traditionally the time when attention is given in the media and in conversations to the expression of optimism.  But if optimism is the belief or confidence that things will work out for the best, and if that "best" includes a robust and advanced civilization say a century from now, that optimism is getting harder to defend.

It's not just that the effects of global heating are accelerating, and are widely predicted to threaten millions of humans, including by endangered animal and plant species, and the water, soil, forests and climate that sustain us. Or even that our continuing failure to reign in greenhouse gases emissions threatens all of that to a much greater extent in the farther future.

It isn't even that our still babyish awareness, and incremental efforts to address the climate crisis is likely to be insufficient and too late to forestall these greater consequences, that will change the planet for thousands of years to a condition inhospitable to human life and most of the life we know.

It is that we are increasingly ill-equipped to address any of it, including the effects.  Which may well bring self-destruction that much sooner.

Two examples come to mind.  In the US, we have learned the hard way that our political system is increasingly incapable of sustaining efforts to address these large-scale and complex needs.  In less than two years, the current administration has not only reversed the beginning policies of the Obama administration to address climate crisis causes over 8 years, but environmental policies that grew through administrations of both parties that, insufficiently but at least incrementally, helped sustain a healthy ecology of wildlife, clean water, restorative land and forests.  It's happening elsewhere as well, even more dramatically in Brazil, where the previously protected fragments of rain forests are endangered.

Without the foundation of deep understanding and attitudes, an election victory means next to nothing when nascent efforts can be so quickly reversed.

In the world, we see the rise of significant political factions--and changes in government--that are increasingly xenophobic and nationalistic.  This at precisely the time when global cooperation and action are most necessary.

The first effects of the climate crisis, including droughts and sea-level rise, can lead to secondary threats at least as dangerous, such as warfare over resources or because of desperate migration.  These climate factors are already implicated (though largely ignored as such) in recent wars in the Third World, from Somalia to Syria.

It is this aspect that the Pentagon worries about, when it considers the climate crisis the greatest global threat (or it did, before the current administration banned the word.)  A world of factions or "tribes" suspicious and hostile towards others is a retrenchment that makes warfare more likely, increasing migration pressures even more and creating more likelihood of diseases spreading.

 If these conflicts involve nations with nuclear weapons, destruction obviously could be greater and more widespread, leading to global chaos. This factionalism and nationalism is happening at a moment when virtually everyone is dependent on the smooth operation of a global economy.  Disruptions could bring rapid chaos, even to countries not directly involved in war.

2019 also begins with some positive possibilities.  The new Speaker of the House began her tenure asserting that the climate crisis is the "existential threat of our time."  (The same wording as President Obama used.  Unfortunately, "existential" as a word is too abstract and vague to most people; its meaning as a threat to existence is not the usual way this word has been used.)

On the other hand, some assert that the new climate crisis committee in the House is weaker that the one the Democrats created the last time they were in power.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, running for Democratic presidential
nomination with climate crisis as his main focus
There is also the possibility that the climate crisis will at last be a major issue in a presidential campaign.  One announced candidate says it will be his main issue, and another possible candidate (Michael Bloomberg) is likely to do the same.  But other "issues"--most of them made up by the opposition--seem to inevitably create so much noise that anything this serious and complex is apt to be drowned out.

The dynamic new Member of Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is initially focused on the Green New Deal proposals that link green energy with job creation (although her first appearance on Rachel Maddow was devoted to responding to the latest presidential noisemaking on the invented crisis at the southern US border) and her proposals--not unrelated to addressing the climate crisis--of returning to a sensible tax rate for the wealthy have met with somewhat surprising approval amidst the predictable opposition.  (See Nathan Robinson,  Eric Levitz and Paul Krugman.)

But these are baby steps, and we're still years from even taking them.  We are still in the infancy of awareness.  The latest projections suggest we need to be far more advanced in our understanding, and in our actions, or we will be too late to save even the future that narrowly focused futurists are predicting this January.

If a recent Meet the Press devoted entirely to the climate crisis is any indication, our media leaders as well as political leaders are just beginning to think about what the climate crisis is, let alone how to address it.  This makes it less likely that they will know how to cover it, or to hold leaders accountable for inaction.  Instead they will be drawn into the frenzy of the familiar noise.

Add this to the question that follows from our recent national and global politics, as well as the cultural implications of new technologies: are we even still capable of dealing with something at least as complex as World War II?  The climate crisis was always going to be a test of whether humanity had advanced or evolved enough to address this mortal threat to the planet.  As 2019, we are still flunking that test.  Badly.

None of this is a basis for optimism.  Any degree of success will necessitate urgency.  While individuals who feel there is little they can do may well need to defensively maintain a sort of faith that they call optimism (or adopt a more cosmic view about the consequences of failure) this does not justify an optimistic judgement that assumes we'll figure it out and do the right thing in time.  We're not necessarily on that path, let alone going fast enough.

But all of this has nothing to do with hope.  As Speaker Pelosi rightly said last week, looking to her Catholic background, hope is where it always has been, in between faith and love (which for Catholics are the three theological virtues.)

Hope, like faith and love, aren't judgments about the likelihood of anything.  They are commitments.  Hope is what you do.  Hope is becoming informed, deeply and widely.  Hope is choosing what you can do, and doing it.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

A Day to Celebrate

It was an historic day in Washington, when--exactly a century after women got the vote in the US--the first woman to be Speaker of the House opened the 116th Congress, which includes more women in history, 102.  

By any standards and in every way, it is the most diverse House in history.  The House Black Caucus and Hispanic Caucus welcomed more members than ever before.  The first Muslim women were sworn in.  And after several centuries of congresses, the first Native American women became voting Members.

Many of the new Members are young, as evidenced in part by the number of children joining their parents on the floor (including a four month old boy.)  The children surrounded Nancy Pelosi when she took the dais and the Speaker's gavel, and pledged that this Congress would legislate with them foremost in mind.

As several analysts noted, this is also a more cohesive Democratic caucus than existed during the Obama administration.  There are still strong divisions, and struggles between older established members and younger and newer members. But the House Progressive caucus now encompasses nearly half the Democratic members.

It was a joyous day for new members, with an unexpected electric speech placing Nancy Pelosi's name in nomination for Speaker, by Hakeem Jeffries, representative from New York and the new chair of the House Democratic Caucus. It may well have been the most surprising and most powerful speech since Senator Barack Obama at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

It was a day worthy of celebration.

And then there's tomorrow...

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Monday, December 31, 2018

R.I.P. Immortals 2018: Live Words

“ One voice speaking truth is a greater force than fleets and armies, given time, plenty of time...” Ursula Le Guin 1969: The Left Hand of Darkness

"Whatever may happen in the bad times, the verbal arts, at least, tend to become very important. It’s really important what you say in the bad times.” Ursula Le Guin 2017: Conversations on Writing with David Naimon

Yet another kind of immortality can belong to the writer.  Their words are preserved in small physical objects that circulate, are available and easily obtainable. Books provide the most accessible legacy.  They are in so many forms and places--from new and used bookstores to thrift shops, bargain bins and free boxes, libraries and in the homes of friends.  Now they are in digital form, and free on the Internet.  They are much easier to find--and especially, to serendipitously stumble upon--than old films or TV shows, let alone the evanescence of performances.  And they last.

There also seems to be something about the written word that can take time, to expand, to drop the reader into deeper levels, to open new eyes and ears beyond the writer's physical time.  Writers can live in the lives of strangers long after they are dead, perhaps more than they did in life.

The first month of 2018 was not yet over before Ursula Le Guin died. No Time To Spare, her wonderful selection of online writing, especially for her blog, had been a Christmas hit in December. I bought it on Christmas Eve at Kepler's Bookstore in Menlo Park, California.

This Christmastime I returned to Kepler's and saw a special Le Guin endcap, with that book still featured, as well as collections of short stories, her last volume of poetry, and the collected Earthsea novels, plus a new book, Conversations on Writing, that consists of interviews she gave in 2017. This book suggests some of the reasons that Le Guin was and will remain a strong influence on other writers, and all kinds of writing.

In terms of her fictions, her particular gift of anthropological science fiction is likely to influence even more visions of the future, as that future is more and more shaped by climate and ecological crisis. Margaret Atwood notes that all the oppressive aspects of the future she imagines in her novel, The Handmaid's Tale, do happen in parts of the world or did happen in history. Many of the striking imaginings in Le Guin's novels are derived from Indigenous cultures of the past and present. Her insistence on cultural attributes that serve the Earth as well as humanity, and preserve a realistic relationship between them, will only grow in importance.

Three very different writers who died in 2018, Philip Roth, Neil Simon and Tom Wolfe, did much to illuminate American life in the 20th century, and in so doing, helped define our view of our own culture.

Roth in his meticulous fictions, in both his grim and hilarious modes, and Simon in his comic plays and screenplays, explored Jewish-American experience, and revealed much about both sides of the hyphen. They also transcended nationality, imagining their way into other sorts of lives. Because Neil Simon was so popular, his achievement is perhaps undervalued, particularly his screenplays, including a lesser known gem like Max Dugan Returns. Tom Wolfe on the other hand came from the WASP world, and was equally comfortable writing about the rich and famous, and the oddball outcasts. He attempted more consciously to define the culture he observed.

William Goldman was one of Hollywood's most celebrated screenwriters, but he also wrote three books that became classics in their fields.  His Adventures in the Screen Trade is considered the best book on screenwriting and Hollywood, and his The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway is considered the best book on Broadway and American theatre.  But his little self-conscious fairytale novel, The Princess Bride, was a word-of-mouth hit that's now a classic, and the movie made from it has its own, still-growing cult of admirers.  I loved all three (or four, counting the movie.)

I remember watching a PBS documentary in the 1970s or early 80s on the new physics of the very large and the very small.  I knew nothing about it, so I struggled to understand something about quarks with color and the four forces of the universe.  The documentary culminated in speculation about a grand unified theory that would unite all the forces and all of physics.  There was one man, the announcer said, who might do it.  And the screen showed Steven Hawking, small and twisted in his wheelchair.  This was before he used his now-famous voice synthesizer, and so the soundtrack included his speech, completely unintelligible to all but a few intimates.  This was the greatest mind in science, in a body suffering a motor neuron disease.  It was an extraordinary mind-boggling moment.

Hawkings never did come up with the theory (then again, neither did Einstein.  Physicists today despair of its existence.)  But he became a global presence, beginning with his international best seller, A Brief History of Time.

For a few summer days at a workshop in Colorado, I was a student of writer Harlan Ellison.  It was 1969, when he was in his prime as enfant terrible, and was playing the part.  He was mercurial at best, but conveyed the fundamental seriousness of writing. (He also liked my story.)  Besides his own work ("A Boy and His Dog" was probably his most famous, and notorious) he edited two important anthologies in the late 60s and early 70s (Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions) that introduced and defined what would be called the New Wave in science fiction.  One of the authors he published was Ursula Le Guin.

Other well-known authors who died in 2018 were (most recently) Israeli novelist Amos Oz, V.S. Naipaul, Robert Bausch, poet Donald Hall, playwrights Maria Irene Fornes and Ntozake Shange.  But there were also a few lesser-knowns who I discovered in serendipitous fashion.  British philosopher Mary Midgely wrote boldly and sensibly and even heroically about evolution in particular.  American philosopher Stanley Cavell was across the street at Harvard when I discovered his books on film at the Harvard Bookstore in the early 70s.   I have a weakness for memoirs and histories of popular culture, so fairly recently I was pleased to discover Gerald Nachman's Raised on Radio.

One of the great American places for serendipity is the Strand Bookstore in New York, where in particular review copies go to live.  Fred Bass, who made it so, died in 2018.

There's a more complete list of writers who died in 2018 over at Books In Heat. May all those mentioned in these memorial posts rest in peace.  Their work lives on.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

R.I.P. Immortals 2018: Screen Lives

Another path to immortality is the freezing of living moments on film.  Usually they are youthful moments, so that sort of beauty lives on for future generations to see.  But sometimes they are moments from youth to age, and so much of a life is recorded, however artificial the images are in some respects.

Some of the movie and television actors who died in 2018 remain well-known, such as Margot Kidder (Lois Lane in Christopher Reeves' Superman series), Burt Reynolds, David Ogden Steirs (TV's M*A*S*H) Harry Anderson (TV's Night Court series.)  Penny Marshall was famous as an actor, and even more important as a director (Big, A League of Her Own, etc.)

Others were familiar for awhile, and we remember their names with a smile but only when we hear them.  Sondra Locke, Barbara Harris (who also co-founded Second City), Joseph Campanella and John Gavin might be among these.

Then there are others we might recognize but whose names are unfamiliar, unless we were fans of their movie or show, like Elmarie Wendel in 3rd Rock From the Sun, or Dudley Sutton in the British comedy, Lovejoy.

Then there are the many who we do not know as individuals, who may have appeared in something we loved, or who we saw in dozens of TV shows and a few movies without taking much note of them, or those whose screen moments were before or after our time.

But that doesn't matter, because these, too, have achieved this kind of immortality. Perhaps it will be only aficionados of their performances, or only their friends, their children and grandchildren who will delight to see them as they were in those moments captured on film.  But they live on for these relative few, and potentially for anyone, in those moments.

Some of the actors who passed from the world in 2018 but not from the screen are Charles Asnavour, Donald Moffat, Philip Bosco, Ken Swofford, Anne Carroll, Gilles Pelletier, Sheila White, Scott Bloch, Ken Berry, Peter Donat, Wright King, Roger Robinson.

Olivia Cole, John Mahoney, Georgeann Johnson, Mary Carlisle (at age 104), Glen Chin, Jean Porter, Celeste Yarnall, Peter Miles.

Jane Wenham, Charles Weldon, Carole Shelley, Mary Randall, Helen Burns (at age 101), Bette Henritze, Colin Campbell, Yvonne Gilan, Derrick O'Connor.

Special mention of Bernard Bragg, co-founder of the National Theatre of the Deaf.

And Douglas Rain, who took time off from Shakespeare on the Canadian stage to give immortal voice to HAL in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

More to come.

Friday, December 28, 2018

R.I.P. Immortals 2018: Boomer Memories

There are a number of ways people become immortal, or at least have the influence of their lives extended.

 One way is to remain present or even recurrent in the memories of the living.  Memories themselves are not dead.  They change and live according to the lives of the living.  Such living influence can last beyond specific memories of a person, in stories that may last for generations.  Those stories, like memories, continue to change, and become living influences in the world.

Such immortality is open to anyone.  Others remain alive in the lives of people who never met them, and may not know their names, through the lasting influence of the work they did, even during just a fraction of their years.  Sometimes this remains alive in the culture.

It is probably strongest in their generation and the first succeeding one, especially if their efforts became part of the lives and memories of children.  Those of us at the beginning of the baby boom were children in the 1950s, and in our most impressionable and formative youth in the 1960s.  So in remembering people who achieved something in the culture in those years, we both remember them and aspects of ourselves.  Some of those people died in 2018, and here are a few examples.  Their degrees of fame don't always correspond to the density of the memories.

From the 1950s: actor and singer Tab Hunter, actress Patricia Benoit (Mr. Peepers), actress Dorothy Malone, actor Bradford Dillman who specialized in creepy roles, Clint Walker (TV's Cheyenne); comic Marty Allen; Nanette Fabray, who used her innocent good looks to parody herself with Sid Caesar and other comic partners.  Actors we saw on numerous TV shows included Diana Jergens and Bill Daily.  Laurie Mitchell, Queen of Outer Space.

Meanwhile, a major shift was happening in America, not always apparent.  They involved civil rights activists Mary Louise Watson and Millie Dunn Veasley (who died at age 100.)  Also Arthur Mitchell, who founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem.  Leading to, among other outcomes, Marcelite J. Harris, the first black woman General in the USAF.

The 1960s: It was about the music, from Nancy Wilson, the jazz singer who broke through to the pop charts and hit albums, to Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul.  Marty Balin was the co-leader with Grace Slick of the most commercially successful acid rock band, the Jefferson Airplane.  The Grateful Dead long outlasted the decade: for awhile, John Perry Barlow wrote lyrics for them.

Dennis Edwards, lead singer of the Temptations.  D.J. Fontana, fabled bassist for Elvis.  Martin Allcock (Jethro Tull),  Jim Redford (Kinks' bassist), Ray Thomas (Moody Blues.) Geoff Emerick, the Beatles' engineer, and Tony Calder, who promoted them.

Cliff White chronicled it all in the UK.  Jerry Hopkins wrote for Rolling Stone Magazine, biographer of Jim Morrison.

Meanwhile, Jalal Mansur Nurridin and the Last Poets were merging word with rhythm decades before it became hip hop.  Leo Sarkisian began exposing radio listeners to African music.

In the shadow of Vietnam, David McReynolds joined the War Resisters League and founded the publication Liberation. Elbert Howard co-founded the Black Panther Party.  Years later Arnold Kopelson would produce Platoon, and Gloria Katz produced American Grafitti.

The 60s through the 80s: It was about the movies: Directors Nicolas Roeg, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.)

David Sherwin (screewriter of ...If, O Lucky Man), Bill Siegel (documentarian of Weather Underground), Lewis Gilbert (director, Alfie.) Actors Genevieve Fontanel (The Man Who Loved Women), Charles Aznavour (Shoot the Piano Player), Susan Anspach (Five Easy Pieces, Blume in Love.)

But there are cultures within cultures.  Koyukon author Poldine Demoski Carlo died in 2018, as did Native performance artist James Luna, Inuit artist Elisapee Ishulutag at age 93 and Cherokee potter Amanda Swimmer, at age 97.

Dancer Paul Taylor.  John Barton, co-founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who transformed acting in Shakespeare for generations--his inspiring videos are on YouTube.

More to come.